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Dissent quieted with most Israelis behind Gaza war

Thursday - 7/31/2014, 5:58am  ET

FILE - In this file photo taken Saturday, July 19, 2014, an Israeli left-wing activist holds a sign during a demonstration against Israel's operation in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Despite Israeli casualties and world criticism, a near-consensus in Israel supports the government’s conduct of the Gaza war, views Hamas as the aggressor and considers outsiders' moralizing as hypocritical, ignorant or both. A small but vocal opposition exists, but those arguing for peace are vociferously shouted down in a way rarely seen in a country long proud of its spirited, democratic debate. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

ARON HELLER
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Despite Israeli casualties and world criticism, a near-consensus in Israel supports the government's conduct of the Gaza war, views Hamas as the aggressor and considers outsiders' moralizing as hypocritical, ignorant or both. And in an echo-chamber fed by ubiquitous updates on Hamas rocket and tunnel attacks, the minority of local voices that do agonize over Gazans' suffering are being silenced in a way rarely seen in a country long proud of its spirited, democratic debate.

A series of recent opinion polls have shown robust support for the war, reflecting years of frustration over rocket fire from Gaza and a new fear of Hamas' network of tunnels that stretch well into Israel and imperil communities along the border. Opposing views, coming primarily from leftist activists and intellectuals, have been met with threats, insults and charges of treason both in social media and face-to-face.

"We are faced with the false, anti-democratic equation that argues that aggression, racism and lack of empathy means love of the homeland," wrote Israeli author Etgar Keret in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. Opinions that do not encourage "the use of power," he added, are derided as "nothing less than an attempt to destroy and annihilate Israel as we know it."

"They want to kill us. We have no choice," said 39-year-old Jerusalemite Gil Yair, referring to Hamas. "They are holding a gun to our head and we have to take control of the situation."

More than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting since July 8, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. On the Israeli side, 56 soldiers have been killed as well as three civilians. Still, several polls this week have shown strong majorities in Israel supported the war and prepared to go on.

It all stands in stark contrast to the deep divisions over most issues here -- from the large questions of peace with the Palestinians to economic policy and the role of religion in public life. The deep schisms can bedevil policymaking and create bad karma, but they are also a source of satisfaction over how genuine a democracy Jews have built under difficult conditions in the harsh Middle East.

A number of anti-war protests held in Israel's liberal hub, Tel Aviv, have been met by hard-line counter-protesters, who pelted insults and shouted calls for the doves to leave for Gaza. A popular comedian who expressed sympathy for Gazan women and children was unceremoniously dropped from a cruise line's ad campaign. And a public service announcement created by an activist group was rejected by Israel's state-owned broadcaster, even though the group was paying for the airtime.

In the ad by the group B'Tselem, a solemn voice reads the names and ages of Palestinian children who were killed in the war. Hagai El-Ad, B'Tselem's director, said it was meant to "re-humanize" Palestinians in the eyes of Israelis. He said the ad was rejected because it was deemed controversial. "We are living in such an atmosphere where the Israel Broadcasting Authority feels it needs to block even something as straightforward as saying the names of Palestinian children who were killed in Gaza," El-Ad said. "That's extreme."

The broadcasting authority could not be reached for comment. B'Tselem has in the meantime uploaded the video to YouTube and is appealing the broadcaster's decision in the Supreme Court.

One blogger named Aric Doron addressed the critics in this way: "I recommend (they) go and live in Gaza! If they are killed unintentionally we promise to read their names."

The vast support for the war can be attributed to the tunnel threat, the extent of which -- some 30 deep tunnels -- has spooked Israelis, and the veritable exasperation with continued rocket fire. It began in 2001 or so with minor projectiles aimed at the sparsely populated border area; now millions of people including those in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are facing serious missiles.

Tellingly, even the leftist opposition by and large supports the war and has not complained too loudly about tactics that have led to the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Tzipi Livni, the Cabinet's leading dove, recently put it this way: "This is the time for us to unite around the understanding that terror must be fought. This is a tough war, but a necessary one."

In a country where military service is mandatory, Israelis have rallied around the young soldiers fighting in Gaza. The deaths of those in uniform is considered just as tragic as those of civilians, and the media have extensively covered heartbreaking scenes from the funerals of young servicemen.

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